Between the Lines

A Puddled Crosswalk in Harvard Square; November, 2017

Saturday after sunset, driving back to Massachusetts from Vermont, it began to rain. I hate, hate, hate driving in rain and dark!* But even more, as I explained to my husband—who’d driven the north-bound trip that morning—I hate being “an indolent wife.” So, gripping the steering wheel at 10:00 and 2:00, I pressed southward.

Traffic on I-89 and, eventually, I-93 fairly light, headlights from opposing traffic and beside us provided just enough light to see the white lane lines; definitely a “Light that is given” experience! “All you gotta do,” I coached myself,” is keep the car between those lines as the highway reveals itself, yard by yard.” (And, oh, yeah, keep an eye out for the red tail-lights of night-vision-impaired drivers in front of you going way, way less than sixty-five miles an hour!)

Super-focused, I nevertheless registered a sense of liberation—joy, even—as everything fell away save my one immediate assignment. Everything! Nothing else mattered. I felt held by those lane lines. I felt enormous gratitude for interstate infrastructure!

A couple of times the rain let up, allowing a long-buried memory to surface and to give additional context to my existential experience: When I was a teenager I actually volunteered to visit my town’s church youth groups to tell adolescent Baptists or Episcopalians about my faith. (Why in the world—or, rather, in Lynchburg, Virginia, where my family was living in those days—did I do that?!) A Unitarian-Universalist back then, pretty sure I said something snarky about the Bible because during the Q and A, one of the youth group’s advisors pushed back. “When you go on a road trip you use a map, right?” he said. “So why don’t you use the Bible as your guide?” Pretty sure I countered with something lofty and callow about knowing I could trust a map maker. (And, yes, there was some truth to that man’s question. It’s taken almost sixty years for me to see that!)

Yes, I reflected in the dark. I still trust map makers. Or, in the case of right now, I trust the engineers who designed this wet, noir highway. And I am so grateful for the workmen who laid down these life-saving lines I follow.

I can trust, too, that more Light will be given. Yard by yard. I don’t need to see all of it. I will be given Enough.

 

 

 

*I am not yet a candidate for cataract surgery. But like most people my age, such surgery is in my future.

Being Human

Doors. New Bedford Quaker Meeting, New Bedford, MA

Sunday morning found me, earrings and bracelets and watch-free, being escorted through the long and eerily empty corridors of the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center. Loathe to say anything that could in any way negatively impact the inmate I was about to visit, I chose to remain silent with my prison-guard escort.* And, too, because I recognized that although I can usually find something to talk about with just about anyone, I had no clue how to engage in a real conversation with someone who worked in a supermax. “So don’t even try,” I coached myself as we waited for another massive, electronically-controlled door to slowly slide open.

The actual visit? Wonderful. Rich. Moving. We told stories. We laughed. We got sad. We talked about our families. We explored why he’d ended up where he was. He described the dimensions and the fixtures of his segregation cell. At some point, as he was animatedly explaining something, his arms waving in the air, his eyes lit up, I was gifted with something one of the Sharing Circle had said last week: “This circle lets me be human.” ( I can’t write about this without welling up.)

“That’s what is happening here,” I realized. He’s remembering how to be human as he sits in this cinderblock cubicle shouting his words to me through a metal grill in a plexiglass window. Every second, here, is precious. (Duh!)

Finally, our time was up, signaled when my new escort unlocked the door to my side of that cubicle.

“I’d been locked in?” I sputtered indignantly.

“Sometimes inmates work as janitors on this floor,” the guard explained wearily. You-were-locked-in-for-your-own-safety, he shrugged as we began our trek back. Along the way we passed another guard. “Howya doing?” he asked my guy.

“Not good,” MG responded through clenched teeth. “But I know how to fix that.” (Or words to that extent.)

“I can use this silence to pray for him,” I decided. I can hold him—and whatever is plaguing him—in the Light. can be human in this self-imposed silence. I can pray. I can put my earrings and my bracelets and my watch back on as if performing a ceremony to commemorate my return to Normal.

And here I am.

 

*The young man I was on my way to see is in “seg,” i.e. segregation, i.e. solitary confinement. Seg visits happen in a different section of the prison from its visitors’ room. That’s why I required an escort.

 

 

It Goes On

Harvard Square Sidewalk, Election Day, 2017

Like many “Villens,” Ralph Hergert had dual citizenship: Somerville and Cambridge. So it was not surprising that although a long-time, pivotal, and much-loved Somerville activist, Ralph’s memorial on Saturday was held at Old Cambridge Baptist Church, his spiritual home in his last years. And that his beloved, vaulted church overflowed with OCBC congregants and Villens who’d worked with him and beside him on peace and social justice issues for over thirty years.

Still the pastor of Grace Baptist Church in East Somerville when we first met, Ralph and I had many conversations about how his faith and mine, both predicated on the belief that we can experience The Divine without an intermediary, were so radically different culturally yet, in fact, so very close. Good stuff.

My favorite Ralph story: He and I worked in the same building, he as the head of the Mayor’s Office of Human Services and I as a teacher at Somerville’s adult learning center. One morning as we were both coming to work we met outside the building and, somehow, got to talking about music—specifically, for some reason lost in the mists of time, about “There Is A Balm in Gilead.” (Endlessly kind, he nevertheless pitied my ignorance of liturgical/spiritual music.) We walked inside, he walking up a flight of stairs, me walking down a flight, and when he reached the top of the stairs, he leaned over the railing. He looked down at me. He grinned. And  began singing that wonderful spiritual. His voice filled the stairwell. His voice filled my sin-sick soul.

Ralph struggled with Alzheimer’s in his last years; his disease was referenced, present, many times during his (music-rich) memorial.  Something else was present, too: a sense that The Work continues. I felt it; others did, too. That all that Ralph held dear and had worked so hard for lived. Buoyant. Enduring. Possible.

Good stuff.

Bowed

One of my neighbors teaches at Harvard Divinity School, a fifteen minute walk. So I often see him pass by on his sidewalk commute. Yesterday morning and, again, today, he walked past slowly, head bowed, his tall, gangly body folding into itself, into his grief. Yes. His grief. You know and I know what news he woke up to yesterday. You know and I know what is breaking his heart. We know what crushes him. It crushes us all. Again? Again? Dear God.

No, I am not comforted as I watch him walk past. (And, yes, I will continue to do what I can do change our unconscionable gun laws.) My neighbor’s grief speaks to me, though. It touches me. It is public—and, literally, moving.

Which is why, I guess, I feel compelled to write about it.

 

 

 

 

Upstream

“Umbro” (Shadow), Union Square, Somerville, MA, August, 2017

There was a time in my life when I told myself,”If I/we can just through this [insert Crisis of The Week here], I/we will be just fine.” This went on for years. Slowly it came to me: there’s always a crisis. Stop saying “If I can just . . . ” and start looking at why this keeps happening. Figure out how to protect yourself from constant fear and anxiety. Figure out what’s going on, upstream, to keep this constant flow coming, coming, coming? (And so, Dear Reader, I did.)

Nevertheless, it took Naomi Klein’s amazing No Is Not Enough: Resisting Trump’s Shock Politics And Winning the World We Need to recognize that the scenario I once knew so painfully is everyone’s, now.

Here’s the bit that did it for me:

Experiencing Trump’s tsunami of Oval Office decrees—seven executive orders in his first eleven full days, plus eleven presidential memoranda issued in that same period—has felt a little like standing in front of one of those tennis ball machines. Opponents might swat back a ball or two, but we’re all still getting hit in the face over and over again. Even the widespread belief among many (or is it hope) that Trump will not last his full term contributes to the collective vertigo: nothing about the current situation is stable or static, which is a very difficult position from which to strategize or organize. (p. 135)

Precisely.

So how do we find our collective footing when we’re all getting hit in the face? (As I write this we are, again, on the edge of nuclear war with North Korea. Dear God! And I marvel that my computer allows me to write those terrifying words without shuddering—and turning itself off.) Naomi Klein offers us a handbook.

Let’s get started.